In Conversations with Friends — the Hulu and BBC television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed book of the same name — 21-year-old Dublin student Frances (Alison Oliver) is navigating adult life with her friend Bobbi (Sasha Lane). However, life takes an unexpected turn when they stumble upon an older married couple, Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and Nick (Joe Alwyn).
Text messaging plays a major role in the communication between Nick and Frances. Frances is awkward and reticent in real life, but texts are a place she’s free from stigma and judgment, which leads to better expression. As she says in the book when Nick proposes the idea of crafting emails full of compliments to each other, “We won’t even have to make eye contact.” While the adaptation swaps emails for texts, it still retains the essence of the book, as Frances’ texts to friends are usually very honest and filled with sentiment. In the book, however, email was used for more than this — it was the medium for exchanges of thoughts, poetry excerpts, and many more things that developed Nick’s interest in Frances. This depth of connection between the characters is something that the show lacks.
Set in post-economic crisis Ireland in 2008, Frances is a broke student heavily financially reliant on her father, whom she always talks to via calls, further emphasizing the vital role technology plays in Frances’ life. This fact adds to her shyness and difficulty in expressing herself because there is similarly a clear power dynamic between her and Nick in terms of finances, age, and stability. Nick is a B-list actor who has faced many mental health problems and, like any other Sally Rooney character, has his tongue tied when examining his emotions. The show’s usage of texts is therefore a lifesaver, indicative of its excellence in capturing the inevitable technological aspects of our lives nowadays. In one scene, for example, Frances sits next to her mother and texts Nick — the sound of texts conflicting with hidden laughter is representative of how the characters are chaotic, awkward, and pretend to be composed around other people.
The show’s onscreen depiction of technology acknowledges it to be a part of our lives which is so subtly embedded that we often forget its presence. Its characters are stuck in the quagmire of erased texts and autocorrected messages, some of which are typed but never sent, representing resentment and bottled-up feelings that frequently make the show’s conversations sluggish. Retyping texts, overthinking what the other person means, and getting anxious when they don’t reply or leave you on read is representation that this Gen Z-er — and likely many others — is glad to see. Texts have helped me label and express my emotions so that they can be dealt with in a better manner. This type of introspection can help with mental health, as is proved when Nick starts to share his thoughts with Frances about work and stress, a practice that serves as a critical part of his healing.
Alongside her studies, Frances is a spoken word artist, her poetry a combination of voice and beautifully pronounced words. She ponders how spoken word is a way for her to express and let go of impermanent emotions. The same philosophy applies to texts: they don’t have to be recorded or remembered, either. Incomplete, offhand in-person conversations are confusing, but Conversations with Friends’ usage of texts adds another dimension of expression to the show and clears many doubts the audience may have.
Later, in the story, Frances writes about Bobbi, her best friend, and publishes the piece for money. Bobbi’s character is quite different in the adaptation of the book. In the brief clips of her on the TV show, Bobbi was characterized as an immigrant possessing elements like coldness and sternness. The series failed to capture her persona making it difficult for the audience to understand the purpose or reason behind Frances writing and publishing a story about her without her consent.
Rooney is renowned among Gen Z and millennials for her depictions of psychological mess through minimalistic conversations and dialogues, and the show successfully does this justice. Bottled-up feelings and incomplete understandings of one another necessitate the usage of texts in Conversations with Friends, which perfectly blends the digital and real-life conversations shaping the destiny of its four characters.